Koran Burning: Can Military Do More to Avoid Offending Muslims?
Hundreds of Afghans are throwing stones, burning tires and chanting “Death to America!” after news broke that U.S. personnel inadvertently burned copies of the Koran at a military base north of Kabul.
The protests have raged for two days after Afghan laborers spotted bags containing the Muslim holy book in trash headed for an incinerator, The Times reported. U.S. officials have apologized, saying it was an accident and ordering training for troops on handling religious materials.
Could the military do more to avoid offending Muslims? The Times interviewed Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Georgetown University who has interviewed scores of U.S. military personnel and Iraqi refugees about their experiences. Though Davis has mainly interviewed Iraqis because she speaks Arabic, she has also followed cultural issues and the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
What do you make of this incident in Afghanistan? Is this a simple misstep or something more?
I think it’s symbolic of the 10 years of the war rather than a misstep. This isn’t the first incident. Iraqis have complained a lot about people going in to do house searches and throwing the Koran on the ground, those sorts of things. But it’s an impossible task to put before a U.S. soldier to recognize the Koran from another book. They don’t know Arabic. How are they going to recognize the Koran?
PHOTOS: Afghans protest alleged Koran burning
But it points to a larger issue of how people feel disrespected by the U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t about an individual action. When I interviewed Iraqis, they would say, “We didn’t like it when the male soldiers came and searched my wife or my mother.” Or they would say, “We didn’t like it that they would bring dogs in.” Those are culturally offensive things to them.
But they said, “Those are things that we can live with. What we can’t live with is the general disrespect shown to us as Iraqis and to our country.” That they’re so dismissive of Iraqi capabilities, of their ability to run the country, their ability to do anything.
The Afghans who have been quoted about the Koran burnings say some of that too, that they don’t respect our country. [Along those lines, The Times recently quoted a shopkeeper named Wali Aziz, who said, “They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country.”]
The larger context of the Koran burnings is what actually drives people’s responses. In some sense it’s about power, that the U.S. has the power to do this.
Did [U.S. Marine Corps Gen.] John Allen say the right things in his apology? How well do you think they handled it?
I was surprised in a good way. He was obviously taken totally by surprise. There’s no reason a person in charge of a base should even know about the disposal of a bunch of stuff. I thought the U.S. response has actually been quite genuine and concerned. They really are trying to win hearts and minds.
But I think the larger thing to keep in mind is that it is about the U.S. occupation of these countries. It’s not about Muslims. It’s not about the Koran. These are the triggers. But the reason these things happen [the massive protests] is because the U.S. is the most powerful force in Afghanistan.